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The Power of Positive Speaking

Philemon 10 - I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus.

Read the whole one-chapter book of Philemon!

Question: Is friendly persuasion biblical? Answer: It depends on what kind of friendly persuasion. Blackmail, white lies, insincere flattery and any other kind of unethical arm twisting or manipulation are certainly not biblical. On the other hand, positive speaking, if it is not used for selfish reasons, is biblical friendly persuasion.

What do we mean when we use the term, "positive speaking?" Positive speaking is saying nice things to people about themselves. It does not nit pick or point out a person's shortcomings to them. Positive speaking goes the extra mile to search out and find a person's positive qualities and character traits for the express purpose of encouraging that person. It remembers positive things about a person that everyone else has forgotten, and then brings out these memories at appropriate times. Positive speaking does not make up nice things that are not true, but it works hard at emphasizing all that is truly positive about a person, even though it may be minimal or taken for granted. Positive speaking is biblical, and it is a powerful form of friendly persuasion, because when positive speaking is used in the right way, it can definitely motivate a person to do the right thing.

The apostle Paul's little letter to a first century Christian named Philemon is an outstanding example of positive speaking being used as friendly persuasion. Throughout his letter to Philemon, Paul was involved in positive speaking for the express purpose of stimulating Philemon to take the right course of action in reference to a Christian slave named Onesimus. Although Paul, as an apostle, could have ordered Philemon to show mercy to Onesimus (v8), he appealed to him instead with positive speaking. Paul's positive speaking with Philemon was certainly not done for selfish reasons and it is therefore a biblical model of friendly persuasion that we can follow when we need to motivate people to take the right course of action.

Before we analyze the positive speaking in this one-chapter book of Scripture, let's review the background and occasion of this letter from the apostle Paul to Philemon. Philemon was a rather well-to-do Christian who lived in the small town of Colossae. In fact, the Church at Colossae met in Philemon's home (v2). Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon. Like many other slaves at that time, Onesimus had taken advantage of an opportunity that presented itself and had run away--and may even have stolen money or goods from Philemon in the process (v18). We can imagine how uptight Philemon must have been! He could only hope for the capture and return of this thief. In the Roman Empire of that day a runaway slave could be put to death. The idea of completely forgiving a thieving runaway slave would have been unthinkable and completely out of the question, even to a Christian master.

Onesimus traveled to Rome (about 1000 miles away) where he could easily get lost in the crowds of the big city. He had no idea that he would be found there by God! We don't know all the details, but it "just so happened" that the path of Onesimus crossed with the path of the apostle Paul in Rome! Coincidence? No way! Even if Paul had known Onesimus from his former contacts with Philemon, this was all part of the sovereign plan of God who "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11). We can be sure that there is nothing that "just happens by coincidence" in our lives either. God is in complete control of all the details even though, from our perspective, it may look like things happen by chance.

It wasn't long before Paul, who was under house arrest at this time, led Onesimus to salvation in Christ. (See Acts 28:30-31.) And it wasn't long before Onesimus realized that as a new Christian he was responsible to return to Philemon and make things right. This should be the pattern in our lives as well. Becoming a Christian leads to being a Christian. Picking up the pieces from our past mistakes to the best of our abilities is an obligation we all have as Christians. Obviously, there may be some bad fallout or "burned bridges" that cannot be reclaimed or repaired, but we should do our best to restore what we have messed up. We should pay back debts that we owe. We should apologize to people we have maligned. We should sacrifice time and money to help those we have hurt.

Certainly we don't need to carry this policy to ridiculous extremes, such as apologizing to everyone who ever crossed our minds in a negative way. But let's not go to the other extreme and think that when we become Christians all former mistakes are entirely erased and we are to forget the past completely. It is true, praise the Lord, that God completely forgives us of all our sin and we do have a brand new life in Christ. However, we are not completely free from the effects of our past sins and former lives. We have an obligation to "return to the scene of the crime" and straighten out the problems we have caused, if at all possible. In fact, as forgiven sinners with new life in Christ we are more responsible than ever to go back and make things right to the best of our abilities. The good news is that now, with new life in Christ and enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, we not only have the will to do so, but the strength to do so as well.

Onesimus had the moral support of a Christian named Tychicus as he returned to Colossae to deal with his past mistakes. Tychicus was traveling along with Onesimus for the express purpose of delivering the letters of Ephesians and Colossians to those churches. (See Colossians 4:7-9 and Ephesians 6:21-22.) Tychicus, a more mature believer, was able to encourage Onesimus along the way. Certainly our Lord will do as much for us as He did for Onesimus. God will always make the moral support of one or more believers available to us when we go back and try to make right whatever we did wrong.

As Onesimus journeyed with Tychicus to Colossae, he too was carrying a special letter. This letter was addressed personally to Philemon, it was written by the apostle Paul, and it was filled with positive speaking! This letter became the book of Scripture we now know as "Philemon."

As we scan the letter to Philemon we see that Paul's positive speaking to Philemon can be categorized under three subheadings. First there is the positive speaking in reference to their relationship. In verse 1, Paul referred to Philemon as his beloved brother. Philemon was not only a brother in Christ; he was a belovedbrother. In verse 7, Paul told Philemon that as a beloved brother he had brought him great joy and comfort. Philemon was the kind of Christian that you like to be around and have around. Sometimes the Christians around us are anything but beloved brothers, and sometimes we wish that they'd just leave us alone! They are unthankful, insensitive, take us for granted and monopolize our time. If only there were more Philemons! The point here, of course, is that Paul was not telling other Christians that Philemon had brought him joy and comfort as a beloved brother, he was telling Philemon himself. That's positive speaking. Paul knew that positive speaking about their relationship would go a long way toward moving Philemon to do what was proper in reference to Onesimus--especially when Paul referred to Onesimus as "my very heart" (v12).

In further references to their relationship, Paul described Philemon as a fellow worker (v1) and partner (v17). Although Philemon was not with Paul in Rome and was not part of Paul's immediate missionary team, Paul went "the extra mile" and linked Philemon with himself as a fellow worker and partner. Most likely the church at Colossae was established during Paul's extended period of ministry in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, and it was at this time that he worked closely with Philemon. (See Acts 19:9-10.)

However, when Paul referred to Philemon as his fellow worker and partner, he not only had their past relationship in mind but their present relationship as well. After all, the church at Colossae was meeting in Philemon's home, so Paul and Philemon were fellow workers and partners in their mutual concern and prayers for the spiritual growth of that church. As Paul wrote directly to Philemon about this important relationship, he was once again using positive speaking. This is the kind of communication that will motivate a person--in the 1st century or in the 20th century! This is biblical friendly persuasion. When he realized that Paul considered him a fellow-worker and partner, it would have been hard for Philemon not to follow Paul's wishes to accept Onesimus "as you would me" (v17).

Another category of positive speaking that Paul used was in reference to Philemon's reputation. In verses 5-7, Paul commended Philemon for his faith and love. This faith and love was focused in the Lord Jesus and it was evidenced in Philemon's care and concern for the saints. Paul was able to say that the hearts of the saints had been refreshed through Philemon (v7). What an outstanding reputation. Could the same be said of us? If our faith and love is focused in Christ vertically, it should be seen horizontally in our faith and love toward His people. What kind of reputation do we have with fellow believers?

Because the idea of faith directed towards the saints sounds a little strange, some Christians have interpreted verse 5 as meaning our faith is directed toward Christ and our love is directed toward the saints. (See Colossians 1:4.) But in the context of positive speaking with Philemon, Paul probably meant that both Philemon's love and faith were directed first towards the Lord Jesus and then towards the saints. But how does a Christian direct faith toward fellow believers?

When we accept them and put our confidence in them and trust them, we demonstrate faith in our fellow believers. Other Christians are encouraged to grow and to use their spiritual gifts when we show faith in them. Philemon had a reputation for doing this and Paul reminded him of it. This positive speaking would have had the effect of inducing Philemon to show the same kind of faith towards a new fellow believer--namely Onesimus. In fact, it seems that Paul was hinting at this very point in verse 6. If Philemon was mature in his knowledge and understanding of his spiritual blessings in Christ, then the fellowship or active sharing of his faith with fellow believers would be demonstrated by accepting saints like Onesimus. Paul was not asking Philemon to risk a leap of faith but rather put a reasonable faith in Onesimus. After all, since his conversion Onesimus had proved himself faithful, and the apostle Paul himself was vouching for him.

Placing a reasonable faith in a fellow believer is a challenge for us, just as it was for Philemon. When we direct our faith towards fellow Christians there may be times when we get "burned." But let's not use this as a reason to put a wet blanket on the spiritual growth or ministry of other believers by failing to place a reasonable faith in them.

While verse 6 refers to Philemon's reputation of faith towards the saints, verse 7 has to do with his reputation of love toward the saints. We don't know what deeds of kindness Philemon had performed for his fellow believers, but they must have been widespread and well known. Most likely Epaphras, who had come from Colossae and was now with Paul in Rome, had informed Paul of Philemon's refreshing acts of Christian love. (See verse 23 and Colossians 1:7-8.) Furthermore, Onesimus himself had probably backed up what Epaphras reported about the character and deeds of Philemon. Certainly if his master's reputation was tarnished in any way, Onesimus would have been quick to point it out to Paul. If we had been in Philemon's position, I wonder what a runaway slave would report about our reputation! In fact, it may have been Philemon's outstanding reputation for deeds of kindness that laid the foundation for Onesimus' conversion in Rome. What a model for us to follow. How many people will be in heaven because our reputation laid a foundation for their conversion?

When Paul reminded Philemon of his excellent record of love for the saints he was involved in effective positive speaking. This friendly persuasion about his reputation would surely inspire Philemon to show the same kind of love to a new servant named Onesimus. Have you ever tried motivating people to do the right thing by reminding them first of their past deeds of kindness? Try it. It works!

A third category of positive speaking concerns Philemon's righteousness. The righteousness that is meant here, of course, is not Philemon's position in Christ, but rather his righteous living as a Christian. Paul was confident that Philemon would do the right thing in reference to Onesimus (v8,21). In fact, he was persuaded that Philemon would spontaneously (v14) do more for Onesimus than Paul had even suggested (v21)! There is no direct mention in the text of releasing Onesimus from slavery, but it doesn't take too much reading between the lines to realize that Paul was hoping that Philemon would give Onesimus his freedom. In fact, it would seem from verses 11-14 that Paul was not opposed to having Philemon send Onesimus back to Rome to help Paul in the ministry there.

In any case, Paul's positive speaking to Philemon about his righteousness would undoubtedly have prompted Philemon to welcome Onesimus back--"no longer as a slave, but more than a slave" (v16). We too can be sure that when we encourage our fellow believers by mentioning our appreciation of their righteous lifestyle, it is hard for them not to do the right thing. Such positive speaking is biblical friendly persuasion.

Paul's appeal was also on the basis of his age (v9), and his imprisonment (v9), and even the fact that he hoped to pay Philemon a visit when he was released (v22)! However, Paul's main basis of appeal throughout the letter was positive speaking. The letter of Philemon is thus a biblical model of friendly persuasion. Do you know any fellow believer in your church or fellowship group who needs to be motivated or encouraged to do what's right? Try positive speaking.
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